Reference Number: 
CTAS-184

The responsibilities related to the care and custody of prisoners held in county facilities are obligations imposed by law upon county sheriffs, sheriffs being the individuals who have been elected by the people of the various counties to perform these and other law enforcement functions.

Cooper v. State, 106 S.W.3d 688, 691 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003).

At the common law, the custody of jails, of right belonged, and was annexed, as an incident, to the office of sheriff. The safe keeping of prisoners involved much peril and responsibility, and it was esteemed unsafe to commit them to the care of any less a personage than the sheriff himself, whose office was one of very ancient date, and of great trust and authority, and who might bring to his assistance the posse comitatus or power of the county.

He had the appointment of the keepers of jails, and was to put in such for whom he would answer; for being an immediate officer of the King's Court, and amenable for escapes, and subject to amercements if he had not the bodies of prisoners in court, it was esteemed against all reason that another should have the keeping and custody of the jail. His right was favored, and could only be abridged by act of Parliament. Even the King's grant to another, of the custody of prisoners, was, after 5 H. 4, void. The care of Gaols, cited in Milton's case, 460, 34 a; 4 Bac. Ab. (Gaol and Gaoler, A.), 29.

These rules of law and principles govern the present case. The sheriff's common law right cannot be abridged, or given to another, unless the purpose so to do be clearly expressed by the Legislature; and this is not done here. The intendment of the law is in favor of the sheriff's right; and public policy requires that he should be the keeper of all prisons. It would be unsafe to commit so important a trust to another, unless for some imperative reason.

Felts v. City of Memphis, 39 Tenn. 650 (1859).

Tennessee case law makes it clear that the sheriff, by virtue of his office, is the jailor and is entitled to the custody of the jail. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County v. Poe, 383 S.W.2d 265, 273 (Tenn. 1964) citing Felts v. City of Memphis, 39 Tenn. 650 (1859) and State ex rel. Bolt v. Drummond, 128 Tenn. 271, 160 S.W. 1082 (1913). See also State v. Cummins, 42 S.W. 880, 881 (Tenn. 1897) (From time immemorial the jail has, of right, belonged to the office of sheriff.  It was so in Tennessee at the adoption of all the constitutions.); Collier v. Montgomery County, 54 S.W. 989, 990 (Tenn. 1900) (We think it plain that the sheriff cannot, against his will, be deprived of the custody of the jail, so far as it is necessary for the detention of prisoners who have been committed for safekeeping, or who are under sentence of death, or who are awaiting trial or a transfer to state or other prisons, or who are detained merely as witnesses; in short, all such prisoners as have not been convicted and sentenced to the workhouse under the provisions of the acts providing that system.).

Pursuant to T.C.A. § 8-8-201(a)(3), it is the duty of the sheriff to take charge and custody of the jail of the sheriff's county and of the prisoners therein; receive those lawfully committed and keep them personally, or by deputies or jailer, until discharged by law; be constantly at the jail or have someone there with the keys to liberate the prisoners in case of fire. See also T.C.A. § 41-4-101. Madewell v. Garmon, 484 F.Supp. 823, 824 (E.D. Tenn 1980) (Tennessee law appears to place direct responsibility on a sheriff for the operations of his jail.); Willis v. Barksdale, 625 F.Supp. 411, 414 (W.D. Tenn. 1985) (The sheriff is an official popularly elected by county residents who has the statutory responsibility for safekeeping all prisoners within the jail.). However, the sheriff may be deprived of custody of the jail if it is jointly operated by two or more contiguous counties pursuant to an interlocal agreement. T.C.A. §§ 8-8-201(a)(3), 41-4-141.